Progressive rock behemoths Yes emerged from London in the late 1960s. Starting out as a psychedelic pop band, they became one of its leading exponents of the emerging genre of progressive rock. Despite a revolving crew of members – bassist Chris Squire was the only constant over the twelve albums covered on this list – the band enjoyed consistently brilliant players in their five-piece lineups. The most beloved Yes lineup featured the stratospherically high lead vocals of Jon Anderson, the thunderous bass and harmonies of Squire, the jazz-influenced drumming of Bill Bruford, the spidery guitar and harmonies of Steve Howe, and the dazzling keyboards of the caped Rick Wakeman.
The commercial zenith of Yes was in the early 1970s with albums like Fragile. The band alienated fans and critics alike with the overlong Tales From Topographic Oceans in 1973. But they rebounded with more excellent albums in the mid-1970s, before breaking up after 1980’s Drama. They reinvented themselves as a pop band in the 1980s, scoring a hit with 1983’s ‘Owner of a Lonely Heart’. The band have continued to the present day – albums from around the turn of the century like 1999’s The Ladder and 2001’s Magnification were generally well-received. But this list focuses on the band’s first dozen albums, through the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s – the group largely disappeared from the spotlight after this point.
Yes Albums Ranked: 1968-1987
#12 Big Generator
90125 provided a way forward for Yes, their highest-selling album. They squandered the follow-up with infighting – producer Trevor Horn quit during the prolonged recording process. The record company were keen for another hit, while Anderson wanted to introduce Yes’ new audience to some “Stravinsky-isms”. Given the circumstances, it’s not surprising that Big Generator is a fascinating mess, at times both a commercial 1980s record (the title track) and an oddball arty album (‘Holy Lamb (Song for Harmonic Convergence)’).
As with the above example, Yes followed a triumphant comeback with a disappointing mess of an album. The group lost engineer Eddy Offord, an overlooked player in Yes’ peak era, early in the album’s recording. Tormato is stuffed with cheesy sounds – technology like Squire’s Mu-Tron bass pedals and Wakeman’s Birotron haven’t aged well. Songs like ‘Circus of Heaven’ and ‘Arriving UFO’ use gimmicky sound effects, and even the stronger songs like ‘Release Release’ have overstuffed arrangements. Squire’s ‘Onward’ is lovely, however.
#10 Tales from Topographic Oceans
Yes’ sixth album was derived from a footnote in Paramahansa Yogananda’s Autobiography of a Yogi. After Yes’ impressive growth over their first five albums, it’s a disappointment, with not enough musical ideas to sustain a double album. It topped the UK charts anyway, even though Wakeman later compared it to a padded bra. ‘The Revealing Science of God’ is a memorable opener and ‘Ritual’ is a triumphant closer, but neither justifies its twenty-minute length. ‘The Ancient’ is tough going, the most avant-garde Yes track of the decade.
#9 Time and a Word
The second Yes album follows a similar format to their debut – an eight-track record with a couple of 1960s covers, this time of songs by Richie Havens and Buffalo Springfield. The material is a smidge weaker than the debut overall, but the major difference is the addition of orchestration – it’s not a good fit for Yes, who are busy players. Songs like ‘Then’ are almost comical with their overstuffed arrangements.
Despite Yes’ plethora of lineup changes, Drama is the only album on this list not to feature Jon Anderson on lead vocals. On Drama, the departed Anderson and Wakeman were replaced by The Buggles – Geoff Downes and Trevor Horn had recently enjoyed a hit with ‘Video Killed The Radio Star’. The pair helped Yes to regroup after the messiness of Tormato – closing track ‘Tempus Fugit’ is particularly strong. Without Wakeman and Anderson, the band sound tougher – opener ‘Machine Messiah’ is closer to metal than usual for Yes. This lineup didn’t last long – on the subsequent tour, the band refused to change the key of older Yes tracks to fit Horn’s voice.
The progressive rock genre hadn’t yet solidified when Yes recorded their debut album. Yes is more akin to psychedelic pop, like The Zombies or Simon & Garfunkel. The classic lineup’s rhythm section is already in place – Bruford’s jazzy drumming and Squire’s extroverted bass are both impressive. The most arresting tracks are the extended covers of The Byrds’ ‘I See You’ and The Beatles’ ‘Every Little Thing’.
Yes broke up after touring Drama – Horn became a successful record producer, while Downes and Howe formed Asia. Squire and White linked up with young South African guitarist Trevor Rabin and former Yes keyboardist Tony Kaye. Eventually, Anderson was brought on board as lead vocalist, and the project was renamed Yes. 90125 is the highest-selling Yes album, on the back of the hit ‘Owner of a Lonely Heart’. This iteration of Yes is notable for their harmonies – with Rabin on harmonies, along with Squire and Anderson, they sound gorgeous on tracks like ‘Leave It’ and the soaring closer ‘Hearts’.
#5 The Yes Album
Guitarist Steve Howe joined Yes in 1970, providing the band with more instrumental firepower. Tony Kaye’s keyboard palette is restrictive compared to what Rick Wakeman would offer on the next record. But the unimaginatively titled Yes Album is a major step forward for the band, with all songs written by the group. Howe shares writing credits on key tracks ‘Yours Is No Disgrace’ and ‘Starship Trooper’, as the group venture into the long progressive tracks that they’re celebrated for. The ‘Your Move’ section of ‘I’ve Seen All Good People’ is one of their best pop songs.
The best-loved lineup of Yes – Steve Howe, Chris Squire, Jon Anderson, Bill Bruford, and Rick Wakeman – only recorded two albums together. Wakeman’s array of keyboard instruments like electric piano and mellotron fill out the band’s sound, turning them into a progressive rock monster. Because of time and budget constraints, each member contributed a solo piece to fill out the running time – this makes Fragile a little disjointed. But the full-fledged songs are all magnificent – ‘Roundabout’ is one of the band’s most beloved songs, while ‘Heart of the Sunrise’ and ‘South Side of the Sky’ both rock hard.
#3 Going For The One
A lot of Yes listeners abandoned them after the bloated Tales From Topographic Oceans and missed out on a couple of great albums from later in the 1970s. After a round of solo albums from each member, Relayer keyboardist Patrick Moraz left the band and was replaced by Rick Wakeman. Released in the year of punk, Going For The One is as grandiose as ever. Wakeman famous recorded his church organ parts over the Swiss telephone system. The title track has traces of country with Howe’s pedal steel, while ‘Parallels’ is fuelled by an amazing Chris Squire bass line. ‘Turn of the Century’ is beautifully elegant, while the top ten UK hit ‘Wondrous Stories’ is the most pop-friendly Yes song for years. Closer ‘Awaken’ has stunning moments – the triumphant sequence, where each chord is the fourth note of the previous chord, is gorgeous.
Frustrated with Tales of Topographic Oceans, Wakeman left Yes. Replacement Swiss musician Patrick Moraz brought a jazz fusion sensibility to Yes’ heaviest 1970s album. The entire first side is dedicated to ‘The Gates Of Delirium’, based on Tolstoy’s War and Peace – the metallic noises in the middle of the song were created by White and Anderson pushing over a pile of used car parts. Relayer features the same structure as Close to the Edge, with two shorter pieces on the second side – ‘Sound Chaser’ pushes close to fusion and funk, and it’s sensory overload with Anderson’s “cha-cha-cha-cha”, Squire’s busy fusion bassline, and Moraz’s squiggly video game keyboards. In comparison, ‘To Be Over’ provides a calm closing to processings.
#1 Close To The Edge
Close to the Edge has held the position of my all-time favourite album for the last fifteen years. It’s often ridiculous – after three minutes of discordant jamming, the title song gives way to a monstrous bass groove and Anderson gibberish about a seasoned witch and a rearranged liver. But it’s consistently captivating and creative with great musical moments; Wakeman’s brief harpsichord interlude, and Howe’s warped blues on the introduction to ‘Siberian Khaatru’. Unfortunately, Close to the Edge was the second and final album from Yes’ strongest lineup – drummer Bill Bruford left to join King Crimson, and his replacement Alan White was capable but lacked Bruford’s jazzy creativity.
Do you have a favourite Yes album? Or a top 5?
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While I created a Yes playlist a few years ago, I haven’t explored their entire albums in greater depth, so I really couldn’t determine my favorite record.
Based on the songs I’ve heard, I think I’m also more drawn to their earlier material. I really dig “Roundabout” and “I’ve Seen All Good People.” Also like “Beyond And Before” from their debut album.
Last but not least, as somebody who grew up in the 80s and still has a weak spot for music from that decade (even though my taste has significantly evolved since), I also like “Owner of a Lonely Heart.” It’s just a cool riff. I also like the bass work on that tune.
90125 (the album that Owner Of A Lonely Heart is from) is actually pretty strong. It was the best version of Yes vocally – as well as Anderson and Squire, Rabin was also a good singer – and there are lots of great harmonies. Songs like ‘Leave It’ and ‘Hearts’ are really good.
Agree. Actually, I got this record on vinyl at the time. Haven’t listened to it in a long time though!
Firstly, thanks for the shoutout. Secondly, wow, ‘Close to the Edge’ is not only your favorite Yes album but your favorite album ever. Interesting. (Mine is ‘Exile on Main Street.’) Since getting involved in the blogosphere I would often say ‘Hey, I’ll give this or that album a spin.’ And then I feel bad because I literally just do not have time to commit to listening to the albums I say I’ll listen to. But I love Yes and I think I’ll give your Top 4 a spin. ‘Fragile’ and ‘Close to the Edge’ I know pretty well but haven’t heard in eons. The others will be relatively new to me. I’ll report back later.
Exile on Main Street is up there for me too (even though it faces tough competition with Sticky Fingers to even be my favourite Stones’ album).
I think a few people probably ditched Yes after Tales, but Relayer and Going For The One are both very good. Look forward to hearing your thoughts.
Almost three years ago I posted “10 albums to say Yes to”. Of your top 5, only one is different to mine.
Same order too. I like 90125, but it’s not top 5 for me. I think we’ve discussed our differing opinions on Going For The One before?
I think we did. No differing opinions on how great Yes were, though!
That’s a good top five. I like all these albums even though every one of them I could only get into about half of the tracks. Tracks like Roundabout and And You and I and All Good People are so awesome that I keep trying to get into the other tracks. They still kind of lose me though. Some of the really complex tracks I find really hard to follow for some reason. But they’re still worth hearing anyway.
It’s basically their five 1970s progressive rock albums, with Tales removed. So it’s an obvious list in some ways – I think a lot of Yes fans would come up with something similar.
These are all great. I’ve also gotten into Tales from Topographic Oceans. And, along with 90125, Big Generator is a guilty pleasure of mine when I have a hankering for that big 80’s sound, which isn’t all that often. Shoot High Aim Low is a good one from that album.
I stopped at 90125 – I hear albums like Magnification and the new version of Fly From Here with Trevor Horn on vocals are good, but I’ve always been happy to stop there. Don’t want to dent one of my favourite band’s by listening to their later, lesser works.
I think Horn’s take on Fly From Here (the sequence of tracks) is pretty good. He moves the climatic ascending sequence from track 2 to the finale and makes a pretty damn good track, wonderful. If Yes were to sign off here it would be a Song Swan.
For me, if you own The Yes Album, Fragile and Close To The Edge, you own their complete greatest hits. That’s all the Yes you need to own.
A lot of people agree with you on that, and they did lose something with Bruford leaving I think. But Relayer and Going For The One are very strong IMO.
A great look at these; I have the self titled album and three of the others are high on my list of albums to pick up (basically the top 5 from Bruce’s post a while back…).
Bruce and I had almost the same top 5s – both pretty similar to RateYourMusic’s consensus too. Probably not an uncommon career trajectory – a couple of albums to get going, then most of their best work over the next few years.
Yeah, the fact that both you chaps had the same top 3 suggested I need to get to those pronto.
I’m going to spin ‘Edge’, you’re pushing me towards it. Great record. I’m looking forward hearing some of that great music. Then onto ‘Relayer’
Those two are great – three tracks an album was a great formula.
Great covers to boot. We already talked (I think) about the jazz angle. “Favorite “album. Nice to hear an album like ‘Edge’ is your choice. Obviously it has moved you (Close to the Edge).
Progress report – I’m getting there. ‘Close to the Edge’ is glorious isn’t it? I’m on my second listen of that. On to ‘Relayer.’
Ok, so here’s the top five gentlemen. (Your lists, of course, are now null and void.)
5 – 90125 – I hadn’t heard this album all the way through. Of the stuff I recently listened to that I don’t already have, this is one I would buy. It rocks hard but it’s still identifiably Yes. Key tracks – “Owner of a Lonely Heart,” “Leave It.”
4 – Time and a Word. I love this album. It’s early Yes before they got mega-prog. But their sound is there and the tracks are great. Key tracks – “No Opportunity Necessary, No Experience Needed.” “Astral Traveler.”
3 – Fragile – Which Bill Bruford said described the tenuous nature of the band’s dynamic at the time. What’s not to love here? Key tracks – “Roundabout,” “Mood for a Day,” “Heart of the Sunrise.”
2- The Yes Album. I recently featured this one so I won’t regurgitate all that. Key tracks – “Yours is no Disgrace,” “I’ve Seen All Good People.”
1 – Close to the Edge. The harmonies on “In her white lace, you could clearly see the lady sadly looking
Saying that she’d take the blame for the crucifixion of her own domain” is as beautiful as any I’ve ever heard.
Now for the bad news – I listened to Relayer and Going for the One. These didn’t really do much for me. They sounded like Yes’ worst excesses, mystical musicianship in the service of no discernible songs. Not for me, alas.
Great list! I would replace Going For The One with Time and A Word, Yes’s debut album, or 90125. I used to hate when prog bands went pop, but the poppy eras of these bands grew on me. Yes’s early years are my favourite by far.
I like 90125, but gravitate towards the 1970s epics. I think Relayer and Going For The One get overlooked a lot, when they’re both very good progressive rock albums – the band lost momentum with Tales from Topographic Oceans and I think a lot of fans focus in on the albums before that, or on the rebirth with 90125.
I wrote notes down on highlight songs from each album. The two albums I’m familiar with are Fragile and Close to the Edge and of those two, Close to the Edge is my favorite. To have it hold #1 space for you is notable. I esteem Yes at about the same as I esteem Jethro Tull, with both being way high on my charts.
I like Jethro Tull, but a lot of my affection is for Thick as a Brick. I like A Passion Play and Heavy Horses too, and there are others I need to spend more time with.
Not sure if you saw my A-Z for 2021, where I featured a Jethro Tull song a day? I got to know some albums better after doing that.
I tell you now that this is an off the cuff reaction and I only know 5 of the albums well but to me the very clear order is
5 ToTO – a true nadir for any band
4 90125 – some passable moments including a good single
3 Fragile – the plot was just about clung on to and Roundabout is pretty damn fine as for America……….Simon should sue.
2 CttE – pop as classical and actually classified as such in my own personal filing system. Rick Wakeman was a mistaken indulgence taken way too far and to misquote Rossini with him involved there were beautiful moments and terrible quarter hours. To be fair, I do actually seek it out every year or two or three when I have nothing better to do and fancy listening to pretentious gibberish set to interesting and pretentious music. Some of it is really beautiful, I readily concede.
1 Yes Album – I have a playlist of 300 plus songs with (when I’m disciplined!) just one from each act. A Venture is on there and there are plenty of others I really like. The ‘restrictive palette’ of Tony Kaye gave them a discipline and grip which simply evaporated with the pyrotechnic but wayward sensibility of RW. I have owned this album for nigh on 50 years and it still gets played. They seem to be exploring and having fun and the result is magical – by Fragile that fun had become exploring for exploring’s sake – I saw Bill Bruford’s National Health and that is an experience I try to forget…….
Nonetheless the mixture of cod poetry sung in a high key, virtuoso bass,guitar and drums and solid keyboard (Kaye for me) was potent even genuinely exciting……. when there was a decent underlying song and some necessary discipline!
I’m definitely team Wakeman – he was great for them. I love his parts on other artists’ songs like Morning Is Broken and Space Oddity too.
I’m interested in subjecting you to Tormato to see if it beats ToTO as a career nadir. It’s a different kind of nadir – it’s faster moving but worse taste.
RW was a great, if not the best, session music contributor – the piano on Life on Mars is sublime and a crucial part of arguably the best pop song ever as well as the songs you mention and others on Hunky Dory, Madman Across the Water etc. It’s just that when there is no set structure to a song, rambling self-indulgence and pomposity set in and he seems to have no self-censorship or stop button. Virtuosity and technical brilliance are tools to enhance and not ends in themselves?
As to Tormato, I’ll summon some courage and see – the bloated, self-indulgent, slow and tuneless ToTO will take some beating though!
Maybe I forgot but I didn’t know you were a Yes fan. They did have one of the best-ever rock bass players with Squire.
I’m familiar with Close To The Edge and 90125 but that is about it.
You have me intrigued with the 1969 album…I will have to check that out. It sounds like something I would like.
Yeah, Squire is the key really – bass plus harmonies made Yes. I was surprised they continued without him.
The Beatles cover on the debut is really good.
Good list! I’ve always respected and liked Yes, without loving them. (My dad, however, loved them.) I expect that you’re going to get some pushback by fans with your #4 position of Fragile, especially since it’s below Relayer.
And good that you limited the selection up to 1987. I’m sure there are superfans who will say there’s good stuff on the later albums, and I’ll take their word on it. But I don’t want to listen to those later albums. I do remember that the “Yes with a different name” Anderson Bruford Wakeman and Howe album of 1989 got significant airplay on AOR radio in the States. And there was also a big deal with the “super Yes” lineup on Union (1991) which also got a bit of airplay. But within a year or two radio forgot about those albums and didn’t play anything off of subsequent releases.
It’s also interesting to see that Roger Dean only designed 5 of the 12 album covers. In my head, every Yes album cover features a dreamy Dean landscape, so it’s sobering to realize that he didn’t even design the majority of these covers. (And “Close To The Edge” is just Dean-esqe lettering.) The band got the memo and most of the albums after Big Generator featured Roger Dean’s art.
I tend to agree with Martin that The Yes Album was possibly their best, despite Kaye’s “limited palette”. I’d rather have that than bombastic Wakeman any day. (And this list reminds me that the “classic Yes lineup” only lasted two albums!)
Usually I make an effort to hear later albums, but usually bands slow right down their output later in their career – there are only a couple of Genesis and Pink Floyd albums post 1990. But Yes have kept cranking stuff out pretty solidly.
I remember when I listened to Tormato for the first time about 10 years ago, after I had absorbed everything I had ever read about the anti-hype for years, I thought “hey, this isn’t so bad…”
And then once I realized I was saying stuff like “that section was kind of ugly” or “man, this thing is only half over…”, it finally dawned on me that agreed completely.
For my money, though, I’ll take Relayer and Fragile as my top two any day.
Tormato has some OK song frameworks I think – ‘Don’t Kill The Whale’ needs better lyrics, ‘Release Release’ needs a less over-the-top arrangement. Too much bad taste. Glad to see some support for Relayer.
Yes is one of my favorite bands and easily my favorite prog band. Having said that, I’ve seen them exactly once (a long time ago) and beyond a certain point, only know tunes, not albums. I guess I’m one of those people who, while I still liked them, moved on from following them closely. Although I am the only person to respond who has actually played “Owner of a Lonely Heart” with Jon Anderson. My list:
5. Yes – A good start. I like how they handle “Everydays” and “Every Little Thing.”
4.Time and a Word. I unreservedly and categorically love this album from beginning to end. I’ve never understood why it gets bashed. AllMusic shares your opinion but user reviews are like mine. “No Opportunity” is exciting as hell and the title song leaves me hopeful.
3. Close to the Edge – This could actually swap places with ‘Fragile.” I’ll give the latter 2nd place because of “Roundabout” and a bunch of great tunes.
2. Fragile. As noted.
1. The Yes Album. This is where I came in. What’s not to love?
There’s a lot of support for The Yes Album out there. For me, it’s kind of a transition from psychedelic pop to progressive rock – you get stuff like Your Move and A Venture that would have fitted onto the first two albums, along with the big epics like ‘Starship Trooper’.
It’s a great one. That said, I could shift among my top 5 albums pretty happily. And I’ll have to dig deeper into the other ones you’ve mentioned.
Hey, looks like Rolling Stone beat you to it on this one
They’ve really embraced the poptimism lately – Olivia Rodrigo was their pick for top album last year.
Fragile. I am not a fan of the band. But I can enjoy this one. My favorite Yes songs are all here. ‘Roundabout’, ‘Heart of the Sunrise’ and ‘South Side of the Sky’. Cannot find so good songs in other records.
Those three Fragile songs are great – it’s a shame the album as a whole is a bit choppy.
I don’t really listen to their albums cuz I’d just be skipping over every other track until I get to the hits. Even their Best ofs have too much on them. I usually just put all the hits all in a row on a playlist and listen to them like that. lol.
I was amazed to learn Wondrous Stories was a top ten hit – I can imagine them having hits early in their career or in the 1980s, but not in 1977.
I had a friend who liked those Jon and Vangelis albums, and one of them had a song that was a hit in the late ’70s also, probably after Wonderous Stories. Which is also kind of surprising.
Is ToTO Tales from Topographic Oceans?? Why do they call it To and not Tf, since it’s Tales “From”? What does the small o stand for? of? I don’t get it
Yup, I was mixing up the From and Of.
Yes is not one of my favorite progressive rock bands, but I can understand why they were so popular. If I have to choose a number one, it’s Close to the Edge.
Cool, I commented on your prog blog.
#4. Close to the Edge
#1. The Yes Album
(I am the rare Yes fan who does not care for Wakeman. I like “Close” and “Fragile” despite him, not because of him. Cannot say the same for any of the later Wakeman albums).
That’s four of the five the same, so not too bad. I have a lot of time for Moraz too – he’s pretty out there on Relayer.
First of all, kudos to you, Graham, for going through the exercise to rank all these albums. And, wow, while I won’t hesitate to say I like Yes, it was kind of eye-opening to see how many of their albums you ranked I don’t know! My Yes listening history thus far really boils down to “The Yes Album”, “Fragile”, “Close to the Edge” and “90125”. I’ve also sampled a few tunes from their latest album “The Quest.” Their current lead vocalist sounds remarkably similar to Jon Anderson.
Anyway, of the aforementioned, I think my favorite would be “Fragile”, followed by “The Yes Album” and “90125.”
I never warmed much to prog rock. Essentially, Yes and Genesis are two representatives of the genre I enjoy.
I skipped their last ten or so albums – other artists from their era tend to slow down significantly from the 1990s onwards, but Yes have kept cranking them out. You might like the first album? Not sure that you’d dig the hardcore prog stuff like Relayer and Tales from Topographic Oceans.
Thanks, Graham. I think previously heard a few tracks from their debut album and will give it another listen. And, yes, if prog rock gets “too intense”, I tend not to like it as much.
Jethro Tull and King Crimson are probably the other big prog rock bands from the 1970s – although Tull are kind of in a zone like Pink Floyd where some of their stuff is prog and some isn’t. King Crimson tend to be a bit more experimental than Yes or Genesis, who generally are both pretty good at hummable tunes (and who both successfully had pop hits in the 1980s).
Encouraged by my former bandmate and longtime music buddy from Germany, I’ve made various attempts to warm to King Crimson. While I recognize the remarkable musicianship, the music I’ve heard just isn’t my cup of tea.
My three favourite Crimson albums (In the Court…., Red, and Discipline) all come from different decades and have different frontmen. So there is some diversity there and it can be worth exploring. But there are more jarring moments than on Genesis albums or Yes albums generally – stuff like Moonchild and Providence.